Taking frantic aim at a fairly promising target -- American jurisprudence -- "And Justice for All" makes a trigger-happy, scatterbrained spectacle of itself. Although it shatters all over the screen, this would-be topical satire may strike enough chords among rabble-rousing yahoos to become of hit of sorts. Profoundly depressig sorts, that is.

The movie, opening today at area theaters, begins with the sound of little children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over a shot of a deserted courthouse corridor. The writers, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, and the director, Norman Jewison, proceed to file a desperately contriveed, yet righteously indignant complaint against the abuses of due process. The implication is that the American system has broken its pledge to those simple trusting, childish voices.

Al Pacino plays a Baltimore criminal attorney named Arthur Kirkland -- looking haggard and crazed, and presumed to be too idealistic and concientious for his milieu. He's the grown-up extension of the kiddies on the soundtrack. Fluctuating between facetiousness and outrage, the scenario demonstrates that the cards are stacked against the caring, frustrated hero. He's a pathetic little goldfish struggling in a pool of sharks, a contrast underlined ludicrously by Pacino's diminutive, slouchy presence and drab, hangdog performance.

Arthur Kirkland -- a peculiar handle for an Italian-American star whose character is also given a Strasberg) -- doesn't merely lose his cases; he literally loses his clients. They end up fatally victimized by corrupt judges or inept law partners.

And that's precisely the problem. The flimmakers never give us the slightest reason for believing that Arthur is a capable advocate instead of monumentally ineffectual shnook. No one has ever looked or acted or sounded less like a lawyer than Ai Pacino in this insufferable travesty of a social comedy.

The filmmakers believe they've given ys enough by insisting that he cares and by indulging Pacino with a climactic courtroom tirade in which he rages against the Injustice of It All. But these devices are tired refrains: Hollywood liberals wearing their hearts on their sleeves in one case and pretending to take a brave, virtuous stand on the other.

Even when given an opportunity to show some smarts, Arthur blows it conspiciously. We're led to believe that he has been thwarted for months in his admirable efforts to free a worngfully imprisoned client, Jeff McCullaugh (Tom Waites, who was much more effective as a convict in "On the Yard"), because of sheer malice on the part of any autocratic judge (John Forsythe, disarmingly effective as a sleek scoundrel). When the judge gets into trouble and (implausibly) seeks Arthur's assistance, our shambling, pure-hearted hero doesn't have enough on the ball to drive a bargain beneficial to his client.

Why not? Because the filmmakers prefer to deploy the client as a victim and console the lawyer with impassioned, self-righteous speeches.

Thus "And Justice for All" become a grotesque artistic example of the kind of social injustice and amoral opportunism it puports to deplore. It's a part of the problem, a vulgar celebration of social decay and lunatic behavior, destined to confirm all the prejudices of knee-jerk cynics in the audience while being dismissed out of hand as an irrelevant, exhibitionistic farce by professional people who must go on coping with the system, flawed or not.

Of course real-life injustices occur. Any practicing attorney can supply examples that corroborate or out do the the situations exploited in "And Justice for All." The difference is that real life did not arrange the situations nearly so decisively, with one dreadful setback or miscarriage of justice conveniently following another.

It's ironically revealing that the most appealing character in the story is a supposedly loony, near suicidal judge played by Jack Warden. Maybe he's crazy and maybe he ain't, but he possesses an ongoing vitality conspicuously absent in the viirtuous hero. Yet we're expected to cherish the hapless Pacino and look down on the robust Warden, and old daredevil who enjoys risking his life and taking forceful action when necessary. The filmmakers' value system is so balled up that they can't recognize the only real mensch in their story.